My daughter is only interested in playing with the boys in her class
I wonder if we should be doing more to foster friendships among females – and if so, how
Question: My 5-year-old daughter is in junior infants. She has an older brother (7), whom she idolises. At school and in the playground, I notice that she is only interested in playing with the boys in her class and appears to be indifferent to the girls. This was the same throughout her two years in pre-school, where her friends were all boys. She is very interested in sport and has never had any interest in dolls, princesses, dress up, etc.
I am worried that the class may become more split along gender lines soon, with play dates and parties generally being all-girls or all-boys. I want her to be comfortable with the girls in her class, to be able to attend other girls’ parties and play dates and to have one or two girlfriends. At the moment, we are letting her take the lead, but I wonder if we should be doing more to foster her female friendships and if so, how.
Answer: Typically children tend to divide along gender lines when they form friendship groups in primary school, with boys preferring to play with boys and girls with girls. There are a number of different reasons as to why this happens such as gender-defined play styles – on average boys tend to be interested in physical and active play while girls tend to prioritise social play and talking. However, a more powerful factor is the process of gender socialisation that occurs in school – girls are expected to play with girls and boys with boys. This is despite the fact that many girls and boys prefer to play with children of the opposite sex. In studies, the actual difference in play styles between boys and girls is slight, though the expectations that they will behave differently are significant.
In truth, children do best when they are encouraged to follow their own preferences and to make friendships with the children they naturally connect with whether they are boys or girls. The ideal is for a child to have a range of friendships, some with boys and some with girls, built around their interests, hobbies and social connections.
Following your daughter’s lead
I think you are right to primarily follow your daughter’s lead in her choice of interests and friendships. It will only become a problem for her if it clashes with the expectations of gender socialisation and if her class becomes rigidly divided along gender lines (eg only having all-girl or all-boy parties or playdates) and there are different ways you can handle this if it happens. For example, you can simply decide to buck the trend and to arrange mixed play dates and parties yourself. You can also discuss it with the other parents and propose that being more flexible based on the children’s needs is the best way to manage things. I would also recommend discussing the situation with the teacher. Teachers can be very influential in encouraging good friendships in primary schools. For example, teacher can set up friendship groups for the yard on certain days, do lessons on what good friends are and explain how boys and girls can be friends, etc.
Encourage her friendship with girls
It is of course a good idea to encourage her to develop friendships with girls as well as boys. You can do this by identifying girls she could be potentially close who might share some of her interests and passions. It sounds like she is a sporty girl, perhaps interested in team sports and other physical activities. There are lots of girls who would share these interests and these are potential friends. Lots of sports start their “nurseries” for children at the age of five and even younger.
Arrange one to one play dates
The best way to encourage good friendships is via one to one play dates and activities. Though large playdates can sometimes work fine, they can be problematic and prone the dynamics of exclusion and inclusion – there is a basis to the expression “three’s a crowd”. As a result, set up one to one play dates where your daughter has time and space to get to know the other child. While you should of course back off and give them space to play, remember many young children need lots of support in developing good friendship skills (choosing good activities, taking turns playing, etc) so it is important to be there to support.
Support her friendships with boys
If she does end up with some male friendships, she might need some special support to manage these. As she gets older, children can tease about cross-gender friendships (eg saying “is he your boyfriend?”) and she may need some help in dealing with this. For example you can coach her to give a good answer such as “he is a good pal of mine, we both love GAA”, as well as mentioning it to the teacher who can deal with this in the classroom.
Encourage your daughter to have a range of friendships
In my experience, cross-gender friendships are not a problem for children. More common friendship problems include a child not having any friends for a period or a friendship being too intense or a child depending too much on one friend ( who might move on as they get older, leading to lots of upset). As a result it is important to help your daughter to build a range of close friendships within a few different circles. This allows her to have lots of options for social support as she grows up and allows the possibility of moving on in friendships without it being a major loss or trauma.
Dr John Sharry is a social worker and psychotherapist and co-developer of the Parents Plus Programmes. He will be delivering a course on Helping Children Overcome Anxiety in Cork on Saturday, January 13th, and in Dublin on Wednesday evenings starting the January 24th. See www.solutiontalk.ie for details.